Tuesday 31 October 2023

the humanization of warfare Remarks from CALLINICUS by JBS Haldane

Because I just couldn't stay away from J.B.S. Haldane, because many of his shorter books are available for free here; https://jbshaldane.org/ as PDF's and because I have never read a defence of Chemical warfare, at all, and specifically not by someone who was themselves the victim of chemical warfare. 

This is also a fascinating dive into Haldanes inter-war world-view which includes some "problematic" content as usual (in addition to the central argument). 


Atomic Power; 

"We know very little about the structure of the atom and almost nothing about how to modify it. And the prospect of constructing such an apparatus seems to me to be so remote that, when some successor of mine is lecturing to a party spending a holiday on the moon, it will still be an unsolved (though not, I think, an ultimately insoluble) problem." 

In fact we would break the atom within a few decades of this statement, go to the moon within 40 years, after the atom was cracked. 


Blinding Gas; 

"Lachrymatory gas was only once used under ideal conditions—by the Germans in the Argonne in 1915. They captured a fairly extensive French trench system and about 2,400 prisoners, almost all unwounded, but temporarily blind." 

The Germans opened chemical warfare with blinding gas in 1915. I did not know this. New weapons seem staggeringly effective at first use. The enemy hasn't even imagined any defence. After that, as we shall see, the prizes tend to go to whomever can adapt fastest, not necessarily to the first user. 


Gassing the uneducated; 

"Gases of the first group were used in clouds discharged from cylinders, some- times on a front of several miles. 

They probably caused at least 20,000 casualties among unprotected or inadequately protected British troops. At least a quarter of these died, and that very painfully, in many cases after a struggle for breath lasting several days. 

On the other hand, of those who did not die almost all recovered completely, and the symptoms of the few who became permanent invalids were mainly nervous. 

Apart, however, from the extreme terror and agitation produced by the gassing of uneducated people, I regard the type of wound produced by the average shells as, on the whole, more distressing than the pneumonia caused by chlorine or phosgene." 

Just don't gas the 'uneducated' bro. This brings us into Haldane being something of a 'special' kind of person. He was raised experimenting on both animals and himself and had a detached, and definitely non-sacralised view of the human body. 


German antisemitism; 

"On the other hand, the German respirators were bad to begin with; and later on were not so good as the British. This was, apparently, because the most competent physiologist in Germany with any knowledge of breathing was a Jew. This fact was quite well known in German physiological circles, but apparently his race prevented the military authorities from employing him. 

The result was that they were unable to follow up their gas-attacks at all closely, but had to wait till the cloud had passed off, by which time resistance was again possible. That was how the Germans paid for anti-Semitism. It is very probable that it lost them the war, as never again, not even in March, 1918, had they as complete a gap in the Franco-British Western front as during the first gas-attack in April, 1915." 

I doubt it 'lost them the war' and I believe Haber was a Jew so clearly they weren't that anti-semitic yet but I have not heard of this particular story before. 


On Mustard Gas; 

"Someone placed a drop of the liquid on the chair of the director of the British chemical warfare department. He ate his meals off the mantelpiece for a month." 


"Thus in April, 1918, Armentieres, the original Northern limit of the German attack in Flanders, was so heavily shelled with “mustard” that the gutters in the streets were reported to be running with it." 


On fools holding back progress; 

the Bayardists have nobbled a curious assortment of allies in their so far successful attempt to prevent the humanization of warfare. 

"Mustard gas kills one man for every forty it puts out of action; shells kill one for every three; but their god who compromised with high explosives has not yet found time to adapt himself to chemical warfare." 


On the possibilities of 'Immune Infantry'; 

"On the other hand, some people are naturally immune. The American Army authorities made a systematic examination of the susceptibility of large numbers of recruits. They found that there was a very resistant class, comprising 20% of the white men tried, but no less than 80% of the negroes. This is intelligible, as the symptoms of mustard gas, blistering, and sun-burn are very similar, and negroes are pretty well immune to sunburn." 


Future War by Haldane; 

"One sees, then, the possibility of warfare on somewhat the following lines:— 

Heavy concentrations of artillery would keep an area say thirty miles in length and ten in depth continuously sprayed with mustard gas.


Suddenly, behind the usual barrage of high explosive shells appears a line of tanks supported by negroes in gas-masks.


In this way the side possessing a big superiority of mustard gas should be in a position to advance two or three miles a day.


It seems, then, that mustard gas would enable an army to gain ground with far less killed on either side than the methods used in the late war, and would tend to establish a war of movement leading to a fairly rapid' decision, as in the campaigns of the past. 

It would not much upset the present balance of power, Germany's chemical industry being counterpoised by French negro troops. Indians may be expected to be nearly as immune as negroes." 


The Morality of Chemical Warfare; 

"I claim, then, that the use of mustard gas in war on the largest possible scale would render it less expensive of life and property, shorter, and more dependent on brains rather than numbers. We are often told the exact opposite, 

In one or two air-raids on other towns it seems probable that the Germans were not far from out-stripping the capacities of the fire- brigades and producing very large conflagrations." 

His aside into the ability of aerial bombing to produce 'fire-storms', where the fire becomes so hot and vast it sucks in air like a tornado and becomes highly self-sustaining, is a disturbing prefigurement of the next war. 


Animal-Loving Soldiers; 

"We have got to get over our distaste for scientific thought and scientific method. To take an example from the war, the physiologists at the experimental ground at Porton, in Hampshire, had considerable difficulty in working with a good many soldiers because the latter objected so strongly to experiments on animals, and did not conceal their contempt for people who performed them. And yet these soldiers would have had no hesitation in shelling the horses of hostile gun-teams, and the vast majority of them were in the habit of shooting animals for sport. " 

The British being a race of animal-lovers who often have no problem shooting animals is a neverending source of incoherent rage for Haldane. 


Objections to Reason; 

"One of the grounds given for objection to science is that science is responsible for such horrors as those of the late war. “You scientific men (we are told) never think of the possible application of your discoveries. You do not mind whether they are used to kill or to cure. Your method of thinking, doubtless satisfactory when dealing with molecules and atoms, renders you insensible to the difference between right and wrong. And so you devise the means of universal destruction,"    

"..and I note that the people who make these remarks do not refuse to travel by railway or motor-car, to use electric light, or to read mechanically printed newspapers. Nor do they install a well in their back-gardens to enjoy drinking the richer water of a pre-scientific age, with its interesting and variegated fauna." 


The Deadliness of scale vs the deadliness of weapons; 

"Moreover, the Great War was the first since the Second Punic War of the 3rd century B. C. between two great civilized nations, each fighting with all its might. This fact accounts for its ferocity. Modern transport and hygiene made its scale possible; the weapons used merely served to prolong it." 


Fear of the Unknown; 

"Now, terror of the unknown is thoroughly right and rational so long as we believe that the prince of this world is a malignant being. But it is not justifiable if we believe that the world is the expression of a power friendly to our aspirations, or if we are atheists and hold that it is neutral and indifferent to human ideals." 



"The views which I have expressed do not coexist in the mind of any party leader or newspaper proprietor, and must therefore be those of a crank. But until some stronger argument can be waged against them than that they are unusual and unpleasant, there remains the possibility that they are true." 


Haldanes vision of Future War, what would have actually happened? 

Can we imagine a world where J.B.S. Haldane is given enough power and support to make his vision of warfare a reality? What would happen? 

We begin with the mass development of Mustard Gas, sealed tanks and uniforms, the training of vast numbers of 'Immune Troops', (presumably black Africans with white officers), and we would assume, development of a wide range of other chemical weapons and delivery systems. 

So, day one of combat; mass firing of chemical shells begins, ideally blocking off large areas of the battlefield. Then the 'Immune Troops' advance with sealed armour support, easily taking lines and targets, presumably making use of lesser or alternative chem weapons as and when they would be useful.

 Thats your first battle, if it goes well. 

Of course even if it goes well, we know Mustard Gas remains horrible for a long time, so the battle zone will be very difficult for anyone other than Immune Troops to occupy. And if you advance non-immune troops through it on trucks then how will you keep them supplied through the zone, and what if they need to retreat? They will have a chemical barrier to their rear. 

And of course, following Haldanes plan, you are using largely colonial troops to defend yourself, who may not agree completely with you on all points and who may be a bit ambivalent about entering chemical hell for you. 

And presuming this is a WW1/WW2 situation, you are probably doing this in France, and the French may not be chuffed about you melting and poisoning their lovely countryside. 

Thats battle One. How do the enemy respond? 

Presumably the enemy is Germany, and they are quite good at chemistry, even without their Jews. (Though the loss of them will hurt them). 

They are also quite well-organised. Presumably they will be shocked and terrified to begin with, but will adapt fast. This is assuming they didn't have intelligence on your chemical weapons programme already and have their own programme. 

They will start work on, and improve, their own chem weapons and protective wear as quickly as possible. 

This is the 'brains over brawn' warfare that Haldane envisions in which victory goes to whomever has the best tech and adapts most quickly. 

But, speaking from the West, where we certainly _think_ we have the brains and our assumed enemies largely have the brawn, do even we want to disconnect war so totally from the flesh it affects as to turn it into a matter of competing technologies? 

If Haldane is right, less people will die. Less of our own people will die. (_If_ he is right.) But is this most-efficient form of hyper-tech chemical warfare what we want to create? 

(Of course your chem-war is also highly dependant on weather; wind direction, rain, perhaps temperature. And these conditions will be known, so what happens if the enemy attacks with the wind. When the wind is blowing one direction they advance with chem-suit Immune Troops', when the wind turns, you advance.) 

Chem weapons would probably be most useful against civilians who have not already experienced them, and most useful when combined with surprise and some other method of attack. This provides a neat combination with incendiary bombing and the creation of a 'Firestorm'. Combining gas with bombs cripples the ability of a city to respond to spreading fires, making a mass conflagration much easier to attain. 

Is the natural tendency of technology in warfare to separate the flesh of the people from the conduct of the war, up until some certain point when the burning and poisoning of all the people becomes the main material of the war? 

Haldane thinks 'stupid' Chivalric wars are made deadlier primarily by their scale and not by technology. That if WW1 had been fought by spears and shields it would have been just as deadly, because of the number of men involved.



Trying to deal with Haldanes argument 

Is not Conservatism at its most rational and reasonable when considering the development of new weapons and methods of war? 

Are we not all the beneficiaries of the deep and innate conservatism and ritualisation of warfare by the stodgy midwits who make up much of the officer class?" 

Could we say that short lethal but evaporating violence could be more honourable than the soft, suffocating violence of Chemical Warfare. Would you rather be gassed or shot? Would you rather gas others or shoot them? 

War is not an experiment and is not predictable 

There are few 'controlled elements' 

Everyone is in a heightened state and is, essentially, not quite the person they are outside of war 

War evolved, grows, changes and mutates in deepy unpredictable ways. Neither the people, the aims, the methods or the morals of those engaged in war are the same as they were at the beginning 

this being the case, a highly conservative ritualised view of war, while probably deeply inefficient, and essentially getting people killed in the short to medium term, is actually pretty good for humanity as a whole in the long term and the larger scale 

when we are in a war we want to adapt, kill and destroy as quickly and efficiently as possible, for our enemies death is our life 

but looking at any particular arrangement of wars from far outside the time and place of their happening; we really want wars in general to be stodgy, ritualised, uninventive, unimaginative, foolish and slow

The slow stupidity of any particular war is agony and horror for those fighting it, for their enemy is .. well the enemy, but for those looking upon all war, and upon the future of the species and of life itself, the enemy is not the enemy but the enemy is the cunning, inventiveness, hunger and unpredictability of war itself, for it is a kaleidoscope-tiger, always shifting and trying to escape its cage.


1 comment:

  1. Haber had converted to Lutheranism about 20 years before WW1, so he wasn't thought of as particularly Jewish until the Nazis popularised a one-drop rule.